Iphigenia in Forest Hills is not a true crime book and Janet Malcolm is not an author who seeks to entertain. Nor is she the sort of author who fades into the background of her writing. More often than not, a critique of any of her books becomes a critique of her. Fortunately Malcolm is as ready to rumble as any star of the WWE. To read any of Malcolm's work for a dispassionate recitation of events is to be disappointed and to, well, miss the point. She seeks to understand what the events reveal about us. She does not stand on the sidelines and pretend to be unbiased - she has an opinion and she draws conclusions.
The bare facts are: Mazoltuv Borukhova is accused of hiring an assassin to murder his husband in front of her. Borukhova and the hired killer are put on trial, a highly imperfect trial in Malcolm's estimation. Her idiosyncratic take is on every page: "But rooting is in our blood; we take sides as we take breaths." It takes a bold writer to indulge in this herself: "That's what I think was going on. No one will ever be able to prove it. But that's exactly what happened."
Malcolm wants readers to see that we all impose our own
interpretation on the testimony. We construct our own narrative, based
on our own experiences and prejudices. We may seek the truth, but our
version becomes the truth. "We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of
certainty." She offers her own version and, be warned, she is sympathetic to Borukhova. Malcolm wants to know what drove events and expands her search beyond what is said in court.
If you haven't like Malcolm's earlier books, you won't like this one. I have a soft spot for a writer who can sidle up to a prospective interview and offer the following reporter's come on "I went up to him and asked if Anna Freud's project ... had been an influence on his work." Combine that unashamedly intellectually approach with Malcolm's pointed ruminations on the impossibility of narrowing accountability for a crime into a narrative that will fit into a courtroom and you have a compelling, unsettling book.